They’re playing with the food again. The latest GMO news? Science breakthrough increases the harvest by 14-20% thanks to figuring out how to fix Nature’s inefficiency problem. Yes, the new study published in Science this week comes right out and says Nature is not efficient. But man is now prepared to correct that little shortcoming. How? By forcing plants to stop wasting time protecting themselves from sun damage. All they have to do is splice in a few foreign genes in the right spot, and the lazy plant will get back to work a lot faster.
Drastic light changes affect plants a lot. Like the plant you overwintered indoors gets sunburned leaves if you don’t slowly indoctrinate it to the full radiation. Or those seedlings grown under lights for the backyard garden that need hardening off (incremental conditioning) before they’re ready to deal with the natural elements. And on a sultry midsummer day under clear skies when the sun’s intensity drives anyone with common sense into the shade? Plants may come through it unfazed, as long as they’re not dehydrated, but only by changing from production mode to survival mode. They have to. Plants can’t run for cover. So, Nature equipped them with a built-in sunscreen mechanism that deflects overzealous sun rays.
The problem, as plant scientists see it, is that crops take far too long to get back to being productive. And plants are wasting tons of solar energy while slacking off on the job. The plant can turn on this photosynthesis feature known as photoprotection in minutes when needed. However, once the danger is gone, the process of getting back up to speed takes several hours when plants are left to their own devices. This in turn, reduces the amount of harvest possible per plant in a given season.
Now all this is perfectly fine for plants in the wild, scientists say. It ensures the species survives the elements, and perpetuates itself forevermore. Yet, this is no benefit to farmers. Continuance of the species isn’t a modern farming concern. Increased production advantages definitely are of great interest, and this lazy safety mechanism is in the way. Technically known as ‘non-photochemical quenching’ or NPQ, acts a lot like a built in sunscreen. If the plant falls into shadow, it can switch back to photosynthesis to increase it’s processing efficiency, but not in a reasonable length of time like when turning it on.
Of course, the plant’s natural mechanism does know what it’s doing. It’s not like Nature made a mistake – every plant on Earth does the same thing! If the shield switched off as fast as it does on, huge intermittent cloud banks drifting lazily across the sky on a hot, still day would trigger it on and off repeatedly. Kind of erratic, like the driver that keeps one foot on the gas peddle and one on the brakes swapping which foot is pushing down every so often. Whiplash comes to mind. So does confusion, stress, and a lot of wasted fuel. But calculations done at the University of Illinois in Urbana’s plant physiology department found that this maddening slow switch from NPQ to efficient photosynthesis cuts the crop’s ability to convert carbon dioxide into sugars by up to 30%.
So, they used the highly familiar, easily manipulated tobacco plant as the guinea pig of choice. Inserting the three protein genes from the other biotech fav, Arabidopsis, to speed up the process. Testing was done first in the greenhouse, and finally outdoors in soil, for a total of 22 days. The tampered with tobacco plants produced 14-20% more biomass by weight than the normal tobacco plant usually does. How did the plants fare? We’re talking about a study less than 3 weeks long done on a crop that takes 8-12 weeks to mature. On the surface no side effects were noticeable. As for effects on the plants’ immunity system or stress tolerance? The trial group of plants was too small for checking into that.
Sounds pretty stressful to me. Invasion of alien genes hijacks normal bodily safety functions leaving the host without natural defenses surely put there for excellent reasons. Nature doesn’t leave anything to chance or produce waste that has no purpose. But industry only sees that every minute your machine is down its a disadvantage. In this case, that machine lives, breathes, and procreates solely for increasing farmer advantages. Oh, perhaps we should look at it from their point of view: we have to grow 70% more food to feed the population by 2050. Not true! We already have a global grain glut approaching ridiculousness, while escalated food price control happens through harvest dumping. And worldwide, both retailers and consumers toss another mountain of food away each year. The key to feeding the world is an economical balance.
But to stay on track…
It’s still unknown if this new plant hack works on fruit bearing plants or grains. No real harvest of tinkered-with tobacco has taken place either. Still, the biotech world is quite confident it will work on any crop because the photosynthesis/NPQ process is pretty much the same in all plants. But they’re also well aware that splicing in foreign genes will not go over well with consumers. It might not comply with regulation. They can’t splice in a plant’s own genes because anything excess is silenced as a means of self-healing. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Human bodies are capable of doing similar things.
However, they think they can still find a way to trick the plant into accepting too much of its own stuff. That’s where the magic of CRISPR comes in… further genetic tinkering is needed. But who cares? This will silence all those skeptics claiming that GMOs do not increase crop yields…
“Making plants that yield more: That is something that everyone should be happy about.”